Joseph and the Angel of the Lord

This little short short may be in Open:Journal of Art & Literature, but because some students have been inquiring about its origins and plan, I wanted to include a commentary, q.v., at bottom. At the very bottom is the section of the Infancy Gospel where I first encountered it, before ‘personalizing’ it.

Joseph and the Angel of the Lord

--adapted from the Pseudo-Matthew*


Kent H. Dixon

When Joseph went off on a job for a few weeks, he left young Mary at the temple with the vestal virgins, but he was gone too long. When he returned, the bridal bread had leavened: she was out to here!

He was furious. He yelled at the elders, prayed in the desert, and roundly confronted the virgins, giving them, as it were, holy hell. They were shocked, dismayed. Every day he’d been gone, they said, the angel of the Lord had come to feed Mary at her lips. That’s how chaste. If something else had happened, if she should have conceived, for instance, it must have been by the angel of the Lord.

It might have been someone dressed as the angel of the Lord, he said, but he was not born yesterday.

But then the angel got to him. What in the name of—so wroth was the angel as to commit anachronism—what in the name of Christ did Joseph think he was doing? What monstrous presumption!

Poor Joseph now felt very guilty, and praised the Lord. But in his heart he

mused: Angel?  Or scoundrel dressed as an angel, and did it matter? It wasn’t his. But, there it was nonetheless, the belly growing, the voices whispering, and as her navel slowly disappeared, it all made for an infinite loneliness in him, which should be part of every man’s religion, and is.

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A lengthy commentary, written for some of my students, follows. Should you want to  see the original from the Pseudo-Matthew that inspired the above, click here on #Barnstone’s Joseph:the Infancy Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew



  1. History: The “Pseudo-Matthew”* is a collection of Infancy Gospels, stories about Jesus’ infancy and young boyhood, in the likes of the Gospel According to James or The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The actual title is a little unwieldy, The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior, but since this particular ‘Matthew’ sprinkles a goodly number of prophecy fulfillments throughout his tales of young Jesus and his parents, akin to how St. Matthew enhances his Gospel in the Bible, then this has come to be called the “pseudo-Matthew,” unfortunately close to ‘fake news’ lexically, but taken as God’s truth in its time, I’m sure. There’s so little in the New Testament about Jesus’ childhood — the nativity, the episode in the temple when he’s twelve, and one passing reference in Luke, and that’s it—that along into the second century C.E., these stories must have been most welcome, and even necessary—who was this man, after all? He was part human, or not; tell us more about that side of it. 
  2. I came by these wonderful extra-Bible stories originally in a book edited and elaborated by Willis Barnstone, called THE OTHER BIBLE: Ancient Esoteric Texts (1984, my edition), which includes selections from the Apochrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Kabbalah, the Midrash tradition, the Haggadah, Gnostic scriptures, and the Jewish Pseudepigrapha. Elsewhere, Barnstone writes about Sappho and Borges (in the same book!), about translation per se, is a poet in his own right, and with Aliki Barnstone has produced A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now. But The Other Bible—the stories range from delightful and touching to downright freaky, myth at its most primitive rawness—will add a rich lens to your reading of the standard one. Copies available on amazon ranging from $3 to $5 (also $239—must be blessed or something). 
  3. I was already primed when I first read it because I’d once become enamored of a story by my instructor at University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, Robert Coover. It’s called “J’s Marriage,” told from a 3rd person pov, but one strongly favoring Joseph, husband of Mary, and in this version having some trouble consummating this marriage with his beautiful young bride, complicated further when one night, to stave him off, she tells him she is with child. 

    She explained to him that her pregnancy was an Act of God, and he had to admit against all mandates of his reason that it must be so, but he couldn’t imagine whatever had brought a God to do such a useless and, well, yes, in a way, almost vulgar thing. J always thought about everything a great deal . . . and about this, to be sure, he thought even more than usual. 

    Pricksongs & Descants

    Coover, too, had thought about it a lot, and through “J” arrives an unbearably lonely end, transcending not only tragedy, but transcendent comedy as well—Olympian laughter swallowed, the joke the gods don’t get.  I loved the story: it spoke to me of my own indeterminate and ‘oppressive fears,’ “…about the misery of any existence, the inevitable disintegration of love, the hastening process of physical and mental rot, the stupidity of human passion, and so on…more than fears, these were his lot and he knew it. So he decided to marry her.” 

    For my own part, I do believe in Joseph, I don’t believe in angels, not indepen-dently talking or inseminating ones; ‘projection’ is a mighty powerful psychological force, but not that powerful, though certain female frogs seem to manage it just fine: I do believe in the parthenogenesis of some amphibians, though I’ve never been witness to it. I also believe in Arimathea (the other Joseph), I certainly believe in Herod Antipas and Tiberius and Pilate and Caiaphas and that sliding morass of reportage and interpretation we call history. The extraordinary lad, younger than my youngest son, was crucified, whether a man incorporate or a phantasm. 

    The thing is, Christians (and Gnostics and Ebionites and Marcionists and Essenes and Baptists and so on, ad inf.) have believed one thing or another completely opposite thing since the beginning—as contrary as Shiites and Sunnis—so it doesn’t matter what I believe, except to me. And I’m big-enough hearted to believe it matters to you, what you believe, dear students. Dear anybody. Hence, my lesson, derived from Joseph’s turn with the Lord’s angel: when you really examine your images and versions and what you care to know of that time that changed time, you find yourself sui generis. Yes, it can be lonely, but then so is death. They’re both about as real as you can get—faith vs. oblivion, is it? 

  4. One amusing anecdote along these lines, and I’ll shut up. Earnest agnostic that I was by my senior year of college, I actually applied to seminary. Not to become a preacher (appearances to the contrary), but to study Greek and Hebrew and get to the bottom of it all. Union Theological Seminary was running a one year special where you could do just that, and, as they said in their ad, ‘Discover whether you believe in God.’ Hey, I could hold on to my 2-S student deferment and settle my eschatological itch. I applied; I also applied to a couple of writing programs, cover my bases. 

    Filled out my curious application (‘Have you ever lied? Discuss.’), got my recs, and sent it all in. Bided my time till I heard back from them: Rejected. My application not even read. They’d received it a little over week late. Well, I’ll be damned.Meanwhile, got accepted at Hopkins and if that hasn’t made all the difference, it certainly made some, avoiding Viet Nam not the least of it.

  5. From: #The Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 

    As quoted from Willis Barnstone’s The Other Bible: Ancient Esoteric Texts (Harper & Row, 1984), highly recommended and herewith hoping this excerpt is forgivably brief and incomplete enough to be reproduced here without written permission, which is applied for but not yet signed and sealed. I’ve certainly plugged the book enough, no? Here’s fake Matthew:

Joseph was in Capernaum-by-the-Sea, on the job, he was a carpenter. He stayed there for nine months. When he returned home he found Mary pregnant. Totally gripped by anguish, he trembled and cried out, “Lord, God, accept my spirit, because it is better for me to die than to live.”

The virgins with Mary said to him, “What are you saying, Lord Joseph? We know ourselves that no man has touched her: we know ourselves that, in her, innocence and virginity were preserved unspoiled. For she has been guarded by God; she always persists with us in prayer. Daily an angel of the Lord speaks with her; daily she accepts food from the hand of an angel. How is it possible that there should be any sin in her? For if you want us to voice our suspicion to you, this pregnancy was caused by none other than God’s angel.”

Joseph, however, said: “Would you try to have me believe that an angel of the Lord impregnated her? It is indeed possible that someone dressed up as an angel of the Lord and tricked her.” And as he said this, he wept and said, “With what aspect am I to go to God’s Temple? With what pretext am I to visit the priests of God? What am I to do?” After he said this he made plans to hide her and set her aside.

When he planned to arise in the night and flee, so that he could live in hiding, behold, in that very night, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to accept Mary as your wife, because that which is in her womb is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son who will be called Jesus; he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph arose from his sleep, gave thanks to his God, and told his vision to Mary and the virgins with her. And after having been reassured by Mary, he said, “I have sinned because I was suspicious of you.”

[This is roughly the first 350 words of about a 1400 word text in Barnstone. I’ve left off the bulk of it because it gets a little boring and over-blown, as in fact, did Barnstone also abridge his excerpt: it goes on and on with Joseph having to face the high priests for his indiscretion, undergoing some perjury tests—‘drinking water of the Lord’s testing and then circling the altar seven times’—and, once Joseph is cleared of knocking her up, the priests and ministers and virgins and people turn on Mary, and she drinks and circles and no fault is found within her either, except that some still don’t believe her so in a clear voice she gives a little speech saying not only has she never known a man, she has never even thought about sex. And she plans to keep it that way. Alas for Joseph. Coover at least gives them one night of love.]

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